Promoting religious freedom is what I do. I do it because I believe in it, not because I’m paid to edit Liberty magazine. But sometimes I wonder what it takes to convince the average person that religious liberty is important now.
It’s often been said that everyone has their price—the early talkies comedian W. C. Fields once did a rather sinister routine with someone who initially rejected his shady suggestion with a comment that it would take millions of dollars for them even to think about it. When he persisted, they were insulted at the character insinuation. “We’re not talking about character here,” countered the comedian. “That we know already; we’re negotiating on price.”
For most people religious liberty is something nice to have, but not something to worry about, since they do not feel threatened. For most people the fact of others in other places suffering under a distinct lack of religious freedom is an abstraction. It usually takes some local shock to awaken interest in the topic. Unfortunately too many answer to Satan’s cynical analysis of long-suffering Job in the biblical book of that name. “Put forth thine hand now,” he challenged the Almighty, “and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face” (Job 1:11). It proved to be a hard test for Job, who eventually passed muster. But I wonder about many of us in the mostly free countries. Do we even know what religious freedom is? Are we guilty of the Pharisee’s prayer: “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men” (Luke 18:11). Such an attitude betrays not only an elitist view, but a tone deafness on the underlying issue.
From my perspective as an editor immersed in religious liberty updates from around the world, the calmness of the average person on the topic is incredible. There are untold examples of modern-day religious persecution. I’ve been to a country—far from the United States, to be sure—and walked through neighborhoods ravaged by religious violence that had left thousands dead. I’ve spoken with individuals, from countries far from the United States, who spent long years in prison for no other reason than that their faith was unacceptable to the countries they lived in. These things are part of the global scene today.
Meanwhile in the democratic West, certainly in the U.S. and Canada, we speak of religious liberty as a given. It has been pointed out of late that about 70 percent of the world’s population live under conditions of severe religious restriction. That is the given. We are the exception.
For some time now we have been following the case of Youcef Nadarkhani, a Christian pastor in Iran who has been sentenced to death for apostasy and a refusal to renounce his religion. It’s all too easy to write this off as just another example of barbaric religious views in another part of the world. As usual, it is more nuanced and eventually more troubling.
It began in 2009 when there was a change in Iranian educational policy, requiring all students to read from the Qur’an. The Iranian constitution guarantees the freedom to practice religion, so Pastor Nadarkhani went to the school and protested. The police then arrested him on charges of protesting. Meanwhile his wife was arrested and imprisoned for several months on charges of apostasy, by which time her husband too had been charged and convicted of apostasy. His sentence was death by hanging.
Late last year the White House issued a statement of support for Nadarkhani for maintaining his faith “which is a universal right for all people.” The statement pointed out that his penalty “breaches Iran’s own international obligations.” In response the Iranian Farsi News Agency reported the comment of the deputy governor of the Gilan province that “Youcef Nadarkhani has security crimes . . . . Nobody is executed in our regime for choosing a religion, but he is a Zionist who has security crimes.” And there it sits at the present as top leaders wrangle about his fate, and the sentence stands.
Often in this magazine we have pointed out that religious issues are at the root of much of the global conflict. Here a Christian pastor is made a proxy for Iranian antagonism to Israel—a conflict with religious underpinnings. His case is connected by Iran because it sees the chief ally of Israel as the “Christian” United States. We are implicated even as most of us celebrate our own religious freedom.
The cavalcade of history is a very mixed caravansary. It is the tale of empires rising and falling. It is the story of peoples on the move. It a full of the dynamic of battle over resources. It speaks of great progress and horrible reverses. But to me little of it makes sense without a recognition that, like a coat of many colors, the bright band of religious activity is always present—in fact, the coat loses value without it.
It is interesting that as the dominoes have fallen in the Middle East, toppling ruler after toppling ruler has cited a threat of religious fundamentalism as their reason for extreme measures. Either they are right or they trained very well in collusion. This dynamic impressed on me lately while watching a Doha Debate on the BBC. The topic was the situation in Syria. The supporting side included key political figures from Syria. Listening to them, one could get the impression of a beleaguered country that is defending against religious terrorists and foreign mercenaries with a religious agenda. Heady stuff—and right or wrong tells me that the battle for religious freedom and clarity is spreading like a contagion.
I regularly get panicked letters from the more paranoid of my readers—many of them members of my own Seventh-day Adventist Christian identity. They often seize upon a single isolated and spectacular incident as reason for concern. Like me, many of them see prophetic significance in the present struggles. Where I usually differ with such letters is what they make of the situation. Few look at the global sweep of events. And few try to interpret their significance for us even in lands of freedom. Most of them are content to wring their hands before taking up “The End Is Nigh” placards.
My lesson from the present is that religious liberty is a global need—even in countries like the U.S. and Canada, where, other than legal finessing, all seems sweetness and light. But we are implicated in the most severe tests to religious liberty observed elsewhere. And in the aftershocks that those cases provoke we are even ourselves at risk of drifting from the true practice of liberty. It is not enough to have a law or a constitution—we must show an engaged commitment to religious freedom no matter the cost.
The upside to the whole dynamic is that the global dialog on religion is now joined openly. In the United Nations issues of religion are discussed with a candor hardly seen before. I know that my own church’s liaison to the U.N. finds it easier to connect and discuss religious freedom with national representatives from the most diverse countries. Here in the U.S. our legislative liaison to Congress revels in an openness we have not seen since our church was forced to engage Congress in the 1880s to counter an incipent national Sunday law. And while politicians and constituency continue to shock from time to time with language that confuses church and state, the dialogue is open and people still persuadable.
So I will close where our fund-raising this year begins: “A World of Opportunity.” These are not just dynamic times; they are revolutionary times in the most literal sense. Yet for the true lover of religious freedom, these are the times of opportunity. We just need to adopt a revolutionary mind-set. In the severe test for religious liberty there may indeed be opportunity to clarify and convince.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."